Written by Caballero Oscuro
King of California is an affable little diversion that deserves some attention now that it has reached DVD. Boasting a star turn by Michael Douglas in his first work of any substance since Traffic, ably abetted by Thirteen breakout starlet Evan Rachel Wood, the film barely made a blip on the theatrical radar during limited release last fall. Thankfully, that oversight wasn’t due to any quality issues, but the film’s minor aspirations make it much more suitable for home viewing than the theatrical spotlight. It’s a telling sign that Alexander Payne’s name pops up in the credits as a producer, as the film fits very well into his oeuvre as a somewhat offbeat comedy with dramatic touches.
Douglas stars as Charlie, an unstable father recently released from a mental institution, while Wood portrays his responsible teenage daughter Miranda, a scrappy young lass who has been surviving just fine on her own. Upon arriving home, Charlie reveals his seemingly harebrained plan to recover an ancient treasure of lost Spanish gold, which he’s convinced he can locate based on his readings in the mental institution’s library. Miranda is understandably skeptical considering Charlie’s long history of delusions of grandeur and failure to make anything of himself, not to mention the ludicrous nature of the plan, but she agrees to assist him out of filial duty. Unfortunately, Charlie’s calculations indicate that the treasure trail leads directly to the local Costco, or rather underneath it, forcing Miranda to get a job there so she can lay the groundwork for their potential excavation.
We’ve all seen plenty of movie role reversal in parent-child relations before, but Douglas really plays up his wacky role to perfection without taking it over the top, giving the character a sweet if slightly deranged nature. He sports a shabby beard throughout the film to match his generally sloppy attire, and seems to genuinely enjoy his loose, relaxed sojourn from his typical high-gloss roles. Like Miranda, we want to believe in Charlie, even though he’s clearly used up his trust in the past. He’s a character who has no qualms about secretly selling his daughter’s car to continue funding his quest, but also a man who values her feelings enough to get it back at great cost to himself.
Wood puts in a fully capable if unremarkable performance, facing off against Douglas in a role that doesn’t ever really require her to stretch but does allow her to portray a highly sympathetic character. Miranda’s shared quest with Charlie is just a vehicle to allow them to bond again, and Wood does a fine job of playing the untrusting daughter who slowly tries to believe in her shady father.
King of California was written and directed by first-timer Mike Cahill, a competent contribution on both counts. Aside from a few brief flashbacks, he keeps the script on track without falling into any needless prolonged emotional reconciliation. Since it’s really just a two-character film, there’s not much to get in the way of the central plot, and he keeps the direction patently basic without relying on any kind of camera tricks to enhance the proceedings. While Cahill’s debut feature isn’t particularly memorable, it is a completely enjoyable yarn and a very refreshing change of pace for Michael Douglas.
The DVD contains standard fare such as a making of featurette and deleted scenes, along with a commentary track by members of the production team (but no actors). King of California arrives on DVD on January 29th.